In honor of Valentine's Day, we've asked a few of our favorite food writers and chefs to tell us about the cookbooks they've really fallen hard for—the culinary tomes that have rocked their worlds and changed their lives, and still make their hearts, and their palates, go pitter-patter.
It was the summer of 2001, and, like any good college student, I was on a beach in Mexico with sand between my toes as the clock struck midnight. I licked my thumb and tasted the salt. This wasn't shot-of-tequila salt; it was the savory, mildly fishy dried-on salt you get from a day spent trolling for Spanish mackerel. My thumb moistened, I turned the page. There were no partygoers on the beach—this was a few years before Cabo would turn into the new Cancún—there was no music blasting; in fact, there was nobody else on the sand there with me at all. I'd snuck out of my family's hotel room around 11 p.m. while my parents and sisters were asleep, a copy of Jacques Pépin's newly released Complete Techniques tucked under my arm. It's how I would spend the next four nights.
I'd started cooking professionally a couple of summers before that, and, while my obsession with food had grown, I'd never had much of a chance to hone my technical skills. I didn't go to culinary school. I didn't learn to cook on my mother or father's knee. My first job was as a Knight of the Round Grill at an all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue joint, and when I took the job, I didn't even know how to hold a knife properly. That was okay. The gig demanded more of my theatrical skills, like juggling shrimp with my spatula tips and exchanging day-old flowers for phone numbers, than any real cooking. I managed to fake my way through it (as well as stints at a few other corporate, family-friendly chains) for a couple of years before I thought to myself, Kenji, you need to learn how to cook if you want to be a cook. Culinary school was out—I needed to finish my undergrad degree, and there's no way my parents would help me pay for another one right afterward—so I looked for the next best thing.
That's where Jacques came in.
I'd grown up vaguely knowing who Jacques Pépin was. I'd seen his show on PBS, tucked between episodes of The Joy of Painting and The Frugal Gourmet. I knew he was a French guy who seemed to know what he was talking about. But I was unprepared for the depth of detailed information he packs into his Complete Techniques. This wasn't a book of recipes, it wasn't a book of pretty pictures or flowery prose; this was the first book I'd ever seen that really taught how to cook, not just how to fake your way to dinner tonight.
It was through Jacques's photographs and clear descriptions that I learned how to properly hold my knife and hone it. He gave me the basics of cookware and how material choice might affect the way my food comes out. It was through him that I learned the most efficient way to slice or dice an onion. He showed me how to debone a chicken with minimal effort and minimal waste. He showed me how to make a vinaigrette (and why my salad greens should be absolutely dry before I dress them).
This was the kind of stuff I'd been craving. The kind of things that they never teach you on television or in the fancy chefs' cookbooks I'd been collecting. (Those books ended up doing a bit of their own collecting: dust.) And not only did Jacques explain how and why I should be doing something a certain way, he did it with full step-by-step photographs. This was recipe blogging years before recipe blogging even existed.
The book is a collection of La Technique and La Methode, two separate volumes published in the late 1970s, and it does show its age in a few areas. Encasing a bottle of vodka in a block of ice is one of his basic techniques. He shows you how to carve olives into rabbits and hard-boiled eggs into clown faces. I'd love to see a fully updated version with more modern techniques, but there's plenty of charm to be found in these artifacts.
In a way, it was perfect timing that I got the book just before a beach vacation. If I'd gotten it back home, I would have jumped straight into it, knife in hand, following along each step of the way, paying too much attention to the photos and the results rather than the explanations and theories. (I'm the kind of guy who doesn't bother reading instructions in full before turning on his power tools.) Instead, I read and re-read that book a half dozen times on that beach in Mexico, taking in everything the master had to say before ever attempting to try it for myself.
There are plenty of great chefs in the world, but very few who are also great teachers.
The first time I met Jacques in person, I was a line cook at a restaurant in Boston. He'd come in to dine, and our chef, knowing my history with his book, asked Jacques if I could come out to the bar, where he was enjoying an after-dinner cocktail, to chat with him. I was nervous walking through the dining room in my cook's whites—cooks never walk into the dining room—but he was as instantly personable and warm as he appears on television. What a relief!
He'd just finished a meal that started with a dish that had come off of my station: pommes soufflé stuffed with caviar. Pommes soufflé, a preparation I first read about on that beach in Mexico, is not an easy dish to get right. You have to cut potato slices to just the right thickness, fry them once, chill them, then fry them again. If you slice and cook the potatoes just so, they puff up like magic, turning into crispy potato balloons with translucent, paper-thin walls that shatter like glass. I had a puff rate of around 40%. I mentioned my troubles to Jacques, and he instantly got up and came back to the kitchen to look at my potato slices.
"You can tell if they are going to puff by looking at them," he said to me, then pointed out how potatoes with too many veins inside would not form the proper shell, as he set aside about half of the potatoes I had cut. Nearly every one of the remaining slices puffed perfectly as I cooked them. I thanked him profusely and blustered a bit about how his book had changed my life. He smiled, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I've met him a few times since then, and he never remembers me, but I don't blame him. The man has many, many students.
Jacques first inspired me to be a better cook: There is nobody who gets me excited about wanting to perfect my technique in the way that he does. These days, he inspires me in a completely different way: to become a better writer and teacher. Jacques's most remarkable skill is his ability to make you feel like you can cook, arming you with the basic tools and information you'll need, giving you the motivation to go out and practice, and it's this skill that sets him apart from every other cookbook author or TV chef out there.
It's no exaggeration to say that every step of my current career—from the genuine pleasure I get out of practicing even the simplest of knife skills to the desire I have to try to break down complex techniques into straightforward language—owes a big chunk of its existence to this book. I probably would have ended up a cook and a writer either way, but I've never regretted that beach vacation when I chose la technique over la tequila.*
I know, I know. It's el tequila. But I'm allowed a little poetic license, aren't I?